Saturday, October 24, 2020

The Super-Spreader in Chief and The Blue Tsunami

 On the day that the U.S. first surpassed the previous highest number of Covid cases in a 24 hour period set this summer, Homegrown Hitler held a rally of seniors and other unmasked, pressed together in Florida.  This is the most literal version possible of the President of the United States as the Grim Reaper, a horror of Hitlerian proportions, once the numbness wears off. 

It is also the day--Friday-- that USA Today published the numbers that show that Covid cases grew at a faster rate than before in five counties following one of  the Superspreader-in-Chief's maskless rallies:  two counties in Pennsylvania, two in Minnesota and one in Wisconsin.  And these rallies were before the current madness of several a day when Covid cases are climbing fast.

And we are just entering this dark tunnel of a runaway epidemic this fall and winter.  But the light is ongoing, leading to eventual relief: the election which is already in progress. 

 The US Elections Project out of the U. of Florida estimates that 150 million votes will be cast this year, less than Fivethirtyeight's projection, but enough to top 65% turnout, the highest since 1908.  It may be a conservative estimate.

But if that's the final number, then at least a third of it is already done.  In Texas, it's 70% of the total votes in 2016.  

Some thousands of those votes are going to be thrown out or never counted presumably. But the total numbers of votes may be too great  for such suppressions to change the outcomes.  Further, it may well be that the surge in early voting is at least partly due to voter rebellion against perceived suppression tactics by Republicans like the Governor of Texas.  He tried to severely limit drop boxes for mail-in votes, especially in huge Harris County.  Voters caught on to this and turned to early voting--to the tune of over a million so far, in a county of 2.5 million registered voters.  Early votes have now nearly equaled the total votes there in 2016.

Two other positive indications also emerged Friday.  First, not only do Democrats have a large early vote lead in the swing states, but they are turning out infrequent and newly registered voters at a higher rate. 

Second, the youth vote is soaring in early voting compared to 2016.  In Florida, over 250,000 have voted, versus 44,000 at this point in 2016.  In North Carolina it's more than 204,000 versus 25,000.  And in Michigan it is a phenomenal 145,000 versus only 7,000 in 2016.  Some analysts worried that the youth vote, notoriously unreliable, would be hurt even more by the Covid chaos on campuses.  But these numbers say something else.

Friday, October 23, 2020

The Post-Debate Landscape

At the moment there are four instant polls that asked who won the presidential debate, and all four say Biden, by margins roughly corresponding to his national poll numbers, or better.  Most commentators say this as well, noting it was his sharpest performance.  The best that is being said for Trump is that he wasn't as obnoxious as in the first debate, and some Republicans are taking some solace from this, hoping that Trump voters who were uneasy about him were reassured.  Maybe.  But on balance, no.

Nor did Trump "stop the bleeding" as one network commentator suggested.  Instead, Joe Biden sealed the deal.  He came across as competent and caring.  That's the reassurance any wavering voters are looking for.  CNN had a group of 15 or so undecided voters in North Carolina.  After the debate, none of them thought Trump won.  More importantly, of the nine that said they were now decided, all nine chose Biden.

Of course that's not proof.  But it confirms my sense of it.  Just about everyone now realizes that the decisive issue is going to be character.  On child separations alone, Trump lost the character issue.  

But the debate did not produce what I consider the most significant political news of the day.  That was the FiveThirtyEight/Nate Silver projection that turnout for the election will total 154 million.  The  projected range is 144 to 165 million.  They saw those voter enthusiasm numbers I pointed out yesterday.

That's a major turnout election.  In 2016 turnout was 137 million.  Except for maybe a few states and downballot elections, there is nothing about high turnout that is bad for Democrats, especially now.  Turnout on the high side tends to validate poll numbers (the mediocre turnout was a major problem in 2016.)

The last round of polls will begin appearing next week, taken after this debate.  What turnout on the order of 154 million likely means is that, in figuring margins in state polls and national polls, you should consider Trump's number as the maximum he will get on Nov. 3, and Biden's number as the minimum.  Because turnout could be even higher.  Then add the early votes (including mail-ins) already sent at about the rate of the polls up to now, which have been pretty consistent nationally, at the proportion of the likely total vote.  (Right now it's something like 60 to 80 million votes already cast.) 

High turnout most likely means that the candidate with even a 2 or 3 point lead in the final poll for a given state is likely to win that state on Nov. 3, though it does get tricky with votes already cast.

Right now the Houston Chronicle is touting a poll that shows Biden ahead in Texas.  The New York Times may be the only outfit to poll Kansas, and they have just found that Biden is down by only 7 points there.  Neither of these states should even be close.  It's like saying Trump is ahead in New York and down 7 in California.  And by the way he's not.

Trump must win Florida, North Carolina and Arizona to have a chance.  If Biden wins just one of them, he's all but elected.  He could lose them all and still be elected, provided he wins PA and the upper Midwestern states in which he currently leads by 5 to 10 points.  But if Trump loses Texas, the Republican party will just about be down to six members of the Supreme Court.   

Thursday, October 22, 2020

This is Not A Reality Show. This Is Reality.

President Barack Obama is known for his eloquence. But that’s due to more than word choice and cadence or even clarity. He is incisive. In his first speech since the convention, his incisiveness sliced and diced the trumpery and landed square upon the central element at issue in this election. 

 He spoke about the Covid crisis and other individual issues, and cut to the chase of competence and problem-solving, which are not within the realm of the Trump. “This is not a reality show. This is reality,” he said, “ and the rest of us have had to live with the consequences of him proving himself incapable of taking the job seriously.”

 Concerning the Covid crisis he said:

" We literally left this White House a pandemic playbook that would have shown them how to respond before the virus reached our shores. They probably used it to I don’t know, prop up a wobbly table somewhere. We don’t know where that playbook went. Eight months into this pandemic, cases are rising again across this country. Donald Trump isn’t suddenly going to protect all of us. He can’t even take the basic steps to protect himself."

 On the economy: "Donald Trump likes to claim he built this economy but America created 1.5 million more jobs in the last three years of the Obama-Biden administration than in the first three years of the Trump-Pence administration. How you figure that? And that was before he could blame the pandemic. Now, he did inherit the longest streak of job growth in American history but just like everything else he inherited, he messed it up. The economic damage he inflicted by botching the pandemic response means he will be the first president since Herbert Hoover to actually lose jobs."

   Healthcare: " Now, they’re trying to dismantle your care in the Supreme court as we speak as quickly as they can in the middle of a pandemic with nothing but empty promises to take its place. It’s shameful. The idea that you would take healthcare away from people at the very moment where people need it most, what is the logic of that?"

  He talked about basic competence and the basis for democratic governance:" Our democracy is not going to work if the people who are supposed to be our leaders lie every day and just make things up. And we’ve just become numb to it. We’ve just become immune to it."

   He called for a return to common American values. “We have to get these values back at the center of public life.” 

 But then he got to the heart of it. He talked about how things would change with a return to those values under Joe Biden. "We’re not going to have a president that goes out of his way to insult anybody who doesn’t support him or threaten them with jail. That’s not normal presidential behavior.... We wouldn’t tolerate it from a high school principal. We wouldn’t tolerate it from a coach. We wouldn’t tolerate it from a co-worker. We wouldn’t tolerate it in our family, except for maybe a crazy uncle somewhere. I mean, why would we expect and accept this from the President of the United States?"

" And why are folks making excuses for that? “Oh, well, that’s just him.” No. There are consequences to these actions. They embolden other people to be cruel and divisive and racist, and it frays the fabric of our society, and it affects how our children see things. And it affects the ways that our families get along. It affects how the world looks at America. That behavior matters. Character matters.

 And that is turning out to be the central issue of this campaign: character. Voters are frightened by the covid crisis, alarmed about the economy, the prospect of losing healthcare, and issues from racial justice to the climate crisis. But they are sick to death of a loud lying egomanical cartoon psychopath in the White House. And millions of them are eager to reject him, while millions more are quietly willing to reject him. 

 I’ve read reporters in the field who see this. I noted it in a story about the first day of early voting in Wisconsin—a reporter was lucky enough to interview a woman who said she literally did not know who she would vote for when she got into line. She no longer wanted Trump, but somehow she felt that she would betray her Christian religion if she voted against him. But in the end she did, and she told the reporter it was because Joe Biden has empathy, and Trump has none.

 And that in the end is going to make the difference. Because character matters. And this is not a reality show anymore. It is reality. 

Video of Obama's speech in Philly is here.  A transcript is here.

 One More Thing....

The poll numbers continue to show Biden with a strong lead: nationally just below or above 10%, which if it holds will guarantee victory. (The New York Times analysis says that even if the polls are off as much as they were in 2016, Biden would still be getting 309 electoral votes.) But apart from the head-to-head numbers (with three PA polls showing a 7 to 10 point lead for Biden) I spotted two intriguing findings in Wednesday’s batch. 

 A new Pew Research poll shows that only 4% of voters surveyed said they planned to vote for the presidential candidate of one party and a candidate for the federal Senate or House from another party. So-called “ticket splitting” used to be fairly common, but this suggests a huge wave in either blue or red. (This poll also found Biden has a 10 point lead nationally, 52-42. Which by the way is the minimum of what I expect.)

 A new CNBC/Change Research poll finds 91% of likely voters nationally say they are “extremely motivated to vote,” including 92% in the battleground states of Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. And that is further evidence of probable high and even record-breaking turnout, at least before things like voter suppression and interference, both foreign and domestic.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

It Has Begun

                                                        Wisconsin early voting today

I’ve voted, and my vote will be counted in the next few days. Opportunities and rules vary from state to state, but voting has begun—with resolve and enthusiasm.  

 And a full two weeks before the official Election Day, it has begun big. That’s especially visible in Early Voting states. 

 In lines that started forming in Georgia at 4 a.m. on the first day of early voting, with Georgians refusing to leave before casting their ballots, even with 4 hour, 6 hour, 11 hour waits.  Think of the determination it takes to do that.


On Monday Floridians lined up in the rain in unprecedented numbers on their first day. Twice as many mail-in votes have been received in Florida than in 2016, more than 2 million. Florida is unusual in that it has a tradition of early voting and mail-ins, predominantly by Republicans. Nobody quite knows what it means that this year there are slightly more Democrats. But at the least it signals Democratic enthusiasm and determination to vote.

 On Tuesday, voters lined up in the Wisconsin cold. As the day began, some 30% of the total votes cast there in 2016 had already been cast through absentee ballots. By the end of the day, it was half. 

 Early voting also broke records in Texas, D.C., Ohio, North Carolina, Minnesota and Virginia—so far, everywhere.

 And apparently these are not necessarily all just voters who would have shown up on Election Day anyway. At least 20% of North Carolina early voters didn’t vote in 2016. Early voters are trending younger and more diverse than before, and their numbers and determination suggest a major turnout election, perhaps breaking records.

 The revolt of suburban women against Trump is showing up in early voting—for instance in Michigan suburbs, where most voters were Democratic women.


And there’s really something happening in Texas. Despite Texas being the hardest state to vote in, there are signs of huge turnout and interest. In Travis county (which includes Austin) an impossible 97% of eligible voters in the population of some 1.2 million are registered this year. In Bexar County (San Antonio) more than 60% of mail-in votes have already been returned, easily a record. 

 Texans have also been lining up for early voting, and have already cast the most votes in the nation—a number equal to all the votes that Trump got in Texas in 2016.  (In fact this is already the case in 5 states.)

 Even in states of confusion, there are positive signs. Though new (and changing) voting rules are roiling things in Pennsylvania, especially for mail-ins, a record number of (mostly young) poll workers have signed up for Election Day. And that’s also true in other states like Wisconsin, where extra help means faster counts.

 As for mail-in votes like mine, all records are certain to be broken. Based on requests even by late September, some officials expect a majority of ballots to be mailed in this year. 

Since most of those mail-in ballot requests came from Democrats, what’s left for Election Day but Republicans? That’s a big unknown at the moment, but reporting suggests that a lot of early voters went to polling sites because they don’t trust the Trump-corrupted Postal Service chief. They may continue to do so in November. Similarly, if voters keep hearing and reading of rejected mail-in ballots—one of the biggest unknowable factors this year—they may change their plans and vote in person on November 3. 

 Even if most of the votes banked before November 3 came from voters who otherwise would have voted anyway, this frees campaign workers to reach out to more potential voters and get them to the polls on November 3. And if many Democrats have already voted, the expected Election Day thuggery, chicanery, intimidation and suppression won’t have as many targets.

Mail-in votes (at least in states unaccustomed to them) obviously suggest the influence of the Covid Crisis.  But early voting, in addition to suggesting worry about the process, are demonstrating that many voters have made up their minds, and probably want to get this all over with.

 But another big message of early voting that is becoming clear is this determination to vote. It also suggests a very high turnout election—and that favors Biden and the Democrats everywhere.

 So it has begun—but it’s only the beginning.

Monday, October 19, 2020

Poetry Monday: North


 “The mind of which we are unaware is aware of us.” R.D. Laing 

 The rising sun not beet
 or blood,
 but sea-rose red.

 I amplified my heartbeat
 one thousand times; 
the animals at first confused,
 then decided I was another
 thunder being. 

 While talking directly to god
 my attention waxed and waned.
 I have a lot on my mind. 

 I worked out
 to make myself as strong
 as water. 

 After all these years
 of holding the world together
 I let it roll down the hill
 into the river.

 One tree leads
 to another,
 walking on
 this undescribed earth.

I have dreamed
 myself back
 to where
 I already am.

 On a cold day
 bear, coyote, cranes.
 On a rainy night
 a wolf with yellow eyes.
 On a windy day
 eleven kestrels looking
 down at me.
 On a hot afternoon
 the ravens floated over
 where I sunk
 myself in the river.

 Way out there
 in unknown country
 I walked at night
 to scare myself. 

 Who is this other,
 the secret sharer,
 who directs the hand
 that twists the heart,
 the voice calling out to me
 between feather and stone
 the hours before dawn?

 I have turned into
 an old brown man
 in a green coat.

 Having fulfilled
 my obligations
 my heart moves lightly
 to this downward dance.

 --Jim Harrison

I think I first became aware of a writer named Jim Harrison in the late 1980s, through his prose pieces in Esquire and Smart, a new magazine for which he wrote a column.  In particular I recall one column that introduced me to the work of Chippewa writer Gerald Vizenor.  Harrison was known for his fiction, and it wasn't long before I was reading it.  He was already famous for the novella "Legends of the Fall," made into a Hollywood film.  One of the first of his fictions I remember reading was the novella "Julip" when it was published in full in Esquire.  He was credited with reviving the novella form (longer than a story, shorter than a novel.)

Since then I've read all of his published novellas and 10 of his 12 novels, plus two volumes of non-fiction.  I continue to believe that his linked novels Dalva and The Road Home are worthy candidates as the Great American Novel of the second half of the 20th century.  I've reviewed several of these books, for (among others) Orion Magazine and the San Francisco Chronicle Sunday Book Review.

But it was a little while before I connected this Jim Harrison to the author of a book of poems I acquired in the early 1970s (Outlyer and Ghazals.)  But they are the same person.  Eventually I caught up with his collection of selected and new poems in the late 90s, titled The Shape of the Journey.  The poem above is in that volume, which had the feeling of elegy, of last words.  Nevertheless he published several more volumes of poems after that, as well as a lot more fiction.

I didn't know Jim Harrison, though I knew or met several people important in his working life, like the poet Denise Levertov, who championed his early work and got his first book published, his lifelong friend and poet Gary Snyder, the writer Jack Turner, even his literary agent, who at one time considered representing me, and offered opinions of a list of my proposed article subjects, approving of all but one, because nobody was interested in shopping malls and American culture.

So if I feel as if I knew him it's because of his words: his writing and his talk in many interviews published over the years.  He shared with Gary Snyder a deep experience in the natural world and an interest in Zen philosophy and meditation.  But he was quite different in other ways, or at least more public about it.  His characters are funny, outrageous, ribald and victims of their vices and their innocence.  We can only guess how much like them Harrison was in his complex life.

Writing was central to Jim Harrison's being, and he felt closest to his poetry.  "To write a poem you must first create a pen that will write what you want to say," he wrote.  "For better or worse, this is the work of a lifetime."  Jim Harrison died suddenly in March 2016, pen in hand.   

Friday, October 16, 2020

Give Biden A Chance: Defeat Mitch McConnell

 Forget Lindsey Graham.  I can see why Democrats salivate when the polls show a close race, but Graham is comparatively hapless.  He's nobody without someone bigger to attach himself to.  The main target now should be Mitch McConnell in Kentucky.  Yes, win the presidency is the first priority, but it's almost useless unless Democrats win the Senate.  And after that, the priority is to cut the head off the evil that the GOP has become, and that's Mitch McConnell.

Apart from Trump, there is no single individual in the government as dangerous to the future.  Mitch McConnell is the embodiment of political evil. And he has been more effectively evil for longer than the regime in the White House. 

 In 2009, at the height of  the Great Recession, with the economy teetering, millions unemployed, families losing homes, industries facing ruin, a leader of the opposition party might put aside partisan politics to work with the new President for the common good in a national--an international--emergency.  Not Mitch McConnell.  He did the opposite.

In an infamous meeting of Republican leaders on Inaugural weekend, McConnell organized a policy of total and complete opposition to everything President Obama and the Democrats in Congress proposed. Even when--as was frequently the case--the proposals included previous Republican demands and policies, and sometimes consisted of ideas previously advocated by Republicans.

Because Mitch McConnell doesn't care about anything but his political power.  H has shown no evidence of a human conscience whatsoever.

 In 2016 he used his power to deny President Obama consideration of his Constitutionally mandated Supreme Court choice, with the bogus excuse that it was too close to the election, then almost a year away.  Now McConnell is about to ram through another nominee far right of the country, while people are already voting in this election, with not even a blush at his own hypocrisy.  His cynicism is as close as he has to a soul.

McConnell engineered the appointment of Trump's divisive Court nominees by one of his first acts as Senate Majority Leader after the current administration took office: he got rid of the standard that a Supreme Court nominee needed 3/5 of the Senate, and instead, for the first time in United States history, mandated that a Justice could be given a lifetime appointment by means of a simple partisan majority.  The 3/5 majority was intended to prevent such naked partisan power polluting the Court. So it was for all of American history until 2017. But McConnell changed all that.

Also in 2016, when the Obama administration conferred with leaders of both parties because of intelligence showing that Russia was attempting to interfere in the election, instead of joining together to fight off this outside danger, McConnell threatened to publicly denounce any efforts to reign Russia in as politically motivated.  The mistake the Obama administration then made was to give into this political blackmail, probably because it seemed most likely that both situations (Russia and the Court) would be quickly remedied when Clinton became President.

Now it's pretty clear that McConnell is going to try to do in 2021 what he did in 2009.  In the throes of a pandemic, in the midst of another Great Recession, in a time of tension over racial justice, and in the last hours in which it might be possible to save the future from runaway climate catastrophes,  McConnell will lead total opposition to anything a Biden administration proposes.

He's already starting by opposing any new stimulus package worth the name, so that a Democratic administration will face a deeper, more intractable recession and a larger, still uncontrolled pandemic.  It does not matter to Mitch McConnell how many people suffer, or what their daily suffering is.  What matters is winning seats in Congress in the next election.

Republicans are into evil pretty deeply. Mitch McConnell makes their evil effective.  But Democrats aren't talking about the Kentucky Senate race, not after the September polls that showed their candidate Amy McGrath behind by double digits.  But McConnell is deeply unpopular in Kentucky.  McGrath has more money to spend on her campaign, although the challenger needs more, and she could always use even more.  And things have changed elsewhere since September.  Democrats can afford to try harder to defeat McConnell, and give themselves a chance to govern.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

The Handmaiden's Tale


You can’t make this stuff up, or at least you don’t have to, as Margaret Atwood proved in the fiction The Handmaid’s Tale, in which everything she wrote about had already happened in the real world somewhere, at some time. 

 But yes, Republican Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett belonged to a neo-Puritan cult of Catholics called the People of Praise, in which she was officially designated a Handmaiden, the highest category of member to which a woman could aspire, for part of the cult’s ideology was female subservience. The computer-generated photo with the hood inevitably followed.

Among the lesser hypocrisies Republicans are wearing like billboards for mendacity is piously defaming any questions on Barrett’s beliefs as attacks on Christianity or violations of the constitutional religious test, as if they haven’t made careers out of doing all of that and worse themselves, and especially as if these “religious” beliefs don’t have vast social and personal implication in a nation that isn’t officially ruled by prelates.

 Giving them cover is the likes of Miami archbishop Thomas Wenski, who manages to defend Barrett as a handmaiden while condemning Atwood. “That a novelist would ‘culturally appropriate’ this word to use in a distorted way to promote an ideology hostile to the Judeo-Christian patrimony of Western civilization only points to the growing biblical illiteracy of our elites and is indeed very disappointing,” he said.

Wenski’s scholarly defense of the patrimony is obviously biased on its face, even if his earlier foray into politics hadn’t been loudly condemning Notre Dame for inviting President Obama as a commencement speaker because of his policies on abortion. Those policies are actually more in line with the behavior of Catholics than with the rigidity and zealotry that has characterized especially the officials of the Catholic Church in recent decades, particularly in America. The Church also officially outlaws birth control, yet most Catholics have piously ignored that stricture for years.

 But the good news is that Wenski and his ilk may no longer be ascendant. Whatever the long term trends and factors, the shift is happening visibly thanks to the corrupt and immoral regime of Trump.

 Daily events pummel and absorb us, and so not many are noticing what an extraordinary realignment in American politics may be taking place. The number of veteran Republicans who not only are abandoning Trump but personally endorsing the Democratic candidate is the most obvious example. But there are others, including the movement of religious leaders away from Trump and to Biden.

 Last week the Hill reported:

 More than 1,600 faith leaders have endorsed Democratic nominee Joe Biden for president as of Friday, including some who could influence evangelical votes, according to a faith voters outreach group. Vote Common Good, which compiled the endorsements this week, says it is the largest group of clergy to endorse a Democratic candidate for president in modern history.

 The group of endorsements includes prominent evangelical leader Billy Graham’s granddaughter, Jerushah Duford. According to its Executive Director Pastor Doug Pagitt.: “Four years ago, many religious voters decided to look the other way and give Trump a chance, but after witnessing his cruelty and corruption, a growing number of them are turning away from the president." 

 A similar story in the Guardian

In July the Public Religion Research Institute found a seven-point drop in white Christian support for Trump, and a Fox News survey in August showed 28% of white evangelicals backed Biden, compared with 16% who supported Hillary Clinton in 2016.

 The crucial change is the abandonment of the one issue litmus test of abortion. Since probably the 1980s, the “pro-life” hysteria whipped up by zealots completely overcame all other moral and political considerations.

 Now there’s a little room for nuance and complexity, and for a more balanced evaluation.  A group called Pro-life Evangelicals for Biden said that, despite disagreeing with the Democratic candidate’s stance on abortion, “we believe that on balance, Joe Biden’s policies are more consistent with the biblically shaped ethic of life than those of Donald Trump. Therefore … we urge evangelicals to elect Joe Biden as president.”

 I emphasize that a statement like that has been unthinkable for the past four decades. From a Catholic it might be called heretical.

 Some of the change is being driven by younger Christians, who see the climate crisis in particular as an overriding moral issue. The recognition that there are other issues with a moral dimension—poverty, racial justice, climate and the environment—and that these may also be “pro-life” in the deeper sense, represents a return to moral rather than ideological evaluations.

 This election is focusing a lot of attention as well by those who are usually quiet. Like the scientists and scientific journals that don’t normally endorse, the enormity of Trump’s ongoing immorality is forcing commitments from some working in a different sphere who prefer to stay above, or at least apart from the fray. In endorsing Biden, Belinda Bauman, the author of Brave Souls: Experiencing the Audacious Power of Empathy, said: “In all my years I’ve never publicly endorsed a candidate. But this year is different – very different. This year we don’t just face a political choice, we face a moral one.” 

 All of this is reflected in voters as well as religious leaders. In terms of numbers, the big movement is not among Protestant Evangelicals (still mostly identifying as Trump supporters)—it’s Catholics.

 An EWTN News-RealClear Opinion poll last month found that Biden holds a 12-point lead over Trump among likely voters who identify as Catholic. In 2016 Trump won Catholics overall by 7%, with a 23 pt. margin among white Catholics. Now Biden's deficit with white Catholics is down to 7 points.  (It helps, of course, that Biden is himself Catholic.)

 In 5 swing states surveyed by Vote Common Good, Biden is getting 16% swing over 2016, which means that he is winning the Catholic vote in these states, where Trump won the Catholic vote in 2016 by 14 points. Biden narrows his losses among Evangelicals with a 7% swing from 2016.

So at the moment an archconservative handmaiden is about to join the real American college of cardinals (the six Catholics of nine Justices on the Supreme Court) to issue her infallible edicts potentially increasing suffering of human souls to satisfy her rigid ideology, it is a posture rapidly being abandoned within her Church.

And if anyone's knee is tempted to jerk into "anti-Catholic prejudice" position, believe me, after twelve years in Catholic schools etc., I know prejudice against Catholics when I see it.  This ain't it.

One More Thing...

Barrett's parade of non answers in her first day of testimony,  so similar even in language that they resembled the hoodlums endlessly repeating I decline to answer on the grounds that what I say may tend to incriminate me to congressional hearings of yore, not only pleaded ignorance of the federal law she supposedly will apply, but demonstrated a bias towards legal technicalities over the impact of decision on real people, even when they number in the millions.  But that's not what the Supreme Court is about, or at least it wasn't.

In fact, considering the real world impact of decisions was so integral that those appointed to the Court often had real world political experience,  It's only recently that Justices were chosen exclusively from the higher ranks of judges, almost always federal judges.  But Justices who had not been judges, or had experience beyond the bench, include some of the most distinguished.  Justice Earl Warren was the Governor of California.  Louis Brandeis was a socially conscious crusading lawyer.  William O. Douglas served as chair of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.  Felix Frankfurter helped form the American Civil Liberties Union.  Stephen Breyer had federal administrative experience before joining the federal Court of Appeals.

These judges would never ignore the consequences of vanishing the US system of healthcare over a narrow interpretation of language.  But apparently the idea of considering the lives of millions of men, women and children has never even occurred to Barrett.

If she is confirmed it will be a political travesty, thanks to Mitch McConnell's unilateral undermining of the Constitutional intent.  While appointments and confirmations have always had a political component, McConnell turned it into a nakedly partisan exercise in 2016 by blocking even a hearing for President Obama's constitutionally mandated appointment, and then transformed the process into a literal partisan one in 2017 by changing the rules so that a Supreme Court Justice is confirmed by a simple majority vote.  For generations it had required two-thirds of the Senate, until 1975, when it was changed to require a vote of three-fifths of the Senate.  Views of the minority--of all minorities--had to be taken seriously then.  That's how the great Justices were confirmed.  That's how the Court became a respected as well as powerful institution.  But not anymore.    

Monday, October 12, 2020

Poetry Monday: Into October

Into October

 These must be the colors of returning
 the leaves darkened now but staying on
 into the bronzed morning among the seed heads
 and the dry stems and umbers of October
 the secret season that appears on its own
 a recognition without a sound
 long after the day when I stood in its light
 out on the parched barrens beside a spring
 all but hidden in a tangle of eglantine
 and picked the bright berries made of that summer 

 W.S. Merwin

Wednesday, October 07, 2020

Fall Is Coming

 It's scary how high he is.  If the crash is proportional, it's ominous.  If there's anyone in America who should not be near steroids, it's Trump.  And he's getting closer to the Covid danger zone.  

Meanwhile, underneath the headlines of the officials reporting their infections,  the secondary spread to the innocent has begun.  Kellyanne Conway's daughter, who outed her mother's infection, has reportedly tested positive.  The wife of a New York Times White House reporter who tested positive, has herself tested positive.  They join the innocent victims of this regime--the children separated from their parents at the border, the thousands needlessly infected with the plague of our time, Americans facing evictions, hunger, poverty, inaccessible medical care, despair, and the millions whose lives are shredded by these viral failures, including schoolchildren.  And more.

Joe Biden (polling at 57% and 16 points ahead in the CNN poll) spoke clearly and sanely at Gettysburg:

"This pandemic is not a red state or blue state issue. This virus doesn’t care whether you live, or where you live, what political party you belong to, it affects us all. It will take anyone’s life. It’s a virus. It’s not a political weapon."

Of course it is evidence of how insane our politics have become that this (as well as most of the rest of this speech) has to be said.  But it does have to be said.  Trump and the R party have raised the denial characteristic of our time to a feverish high, four weeks before the election. The fall is coming.

Monday, October 05, 2020

Poetry Monday: Remember


Remember the sky that you were born under,

 know each of the star's stories.

 Remember the moon, know who she is.

Remember the sun's birth at dawn, that is the

strongest point of time.  Remember sundown

and the giving away to night.

Remember your birth, how your mother struggled

to give you form and breath.  You are evidence of 

her life, her mother's, and her's.

Remember your father.  He is your life, also.

Remember the earth, whose skin you are:

red earth, black earth, yellow earth, white earth

brown earth, we are earth.

Remember the plants, trees, animal life who all have their

tribes, their families, their histories, too.  Talk to them,

listen to them.  They are alive poems.

Remember the wind.  Remember her voice.  She knows the

origin of this universe.

Remember you are all people and all people

are you.

Remember you are the universe and this

universe is you.  

Remember all is in motion, is growing, is you.

Remember language comes from this.

Remember the dance language is, that life is.


---Joy Harjo

Joy Harjo (Este Mvskokvike or Muscogee) is the current Poet Laureate of the United States. She is also a musician, composer and actor.  This poem is from her collection She Had Some Horses.  I heard her read in the late 90s and met her briefly at the book-signing table afterwards.  I remember.


Sunday, October 04, 2020

High Irresponsibility

Sunday continued the pattern of high political and medical irresponsibility by the White House.  But the most irresponsible act by far is the failure to keep vice president Pence in Washington, and in the White House itself.  It is Constitutionally irresponsible.

Medically, inadequate and contradictory information suggests to doctors that Donald Trump's condition is worse or at least more dangerous than both public pronouncements and White House/  Trump campaign behavior.  That is such a widespread conclusion that it was in front page headlines of the New York Times and Washington Post, particularly since Trump is being treated with steroids,  not only usually reserved for the very ill but potentially harmful in less advanced cases. 

This alone--plus the characteristically sudden changes in this disease--would politically and constitutionally demand that the Vice president be physically able to assume the office of president at a moment's notice.  Instead Pence is out campaigning, heading now for Utah.

Trump's doctor Conley is his extraordinary Sunday press conference as much as said that he is lying about Trump's condition because Trump is watching.  Even in trying to explain away his omissions and misinformation Saturday he said "In doing so it came off that we were trying to hide something, which wasn't necessarily true."  Not necessarily true?

Presumably the suggestion that Trump could be discharged on Monday is part of that keeping up his spirits strategy, though Trump's ride to greet supporters, sealed in with Secret Service officers, demonstrates that his medical people as well as political minions will risk anybody's life in order to mollify the boss.  Even when the boss is under suspicion of himself being the Superspreader.

The hope that this life-threatening experience would change Trump or the White House and transform them into more responsible leaders is foundering.  Trump is eager to get back to a rally, and one of his White House minions says there will be no changes in how they happen.

But this is a continuing story of reality overcoming denial.  I would be surprised even if the vice presidential debate actually happens on Thursday, let alone Trump leaving Walter Reed on Monday.

Also on Sunday, three new national polls were released, and Biden has increased his lead in all three.  The Yahoo/You Guv poll shows him with an 8 point lead, 48% to 40%, up from a 5 point lead.  Reuters/Ipso has Biden ahead by 10 points, 51%-41.  The most dramatic increase and highest numbers comes in the NBC/WSJ poll of registered voters where Biden gained 6 points to lead by a whopping 14 points, 53%-39.  All of these polls were taken since the debate.

An ABC/Ipso poll taken since Trump's Covid diagnosis (which hasn't released head to head numbers) found that near three-quarters of respondents agreed that Trump didn't take the risk of Covid seriously enough, which includes 43% of Republicans.  The percentage of  those concerned about Covid rose to 81% from 72% two weeks ago, with most of that 10 point jump coming from Republicans and Independents.  It therefore seems likely that Trump is not getting a sympathy bump, though he may be a cautionary tale.

Saturday, October 03, 2020

The White House Black Hole

 Early Saturday, former Gov. Chris Christie announced he had tested positive.  Christie had been part of Trump's debate prep.  Another US Senator tested positive, and the significance of this was that he was not at the SC nominee event but met with an infected colleague later.  

Then Saturday night word came (from Bloomberg News and NYT Maggie Haberman) that Nick Luna, Trump's White House "body man" tested positive.  This is significant because it is highly likely that he was infected by Trump.  Not every infected person infects others. 

 Luna is also married to a senior advisor to Jared Kushner.  Which brings up another point--the ripple effect on the families of infected Trump insiders.  Or even family members who were present at events, such as the children of the SC nominee, present at the White House last weekend.  Since the public has learned of many of the reported positives only after the information leaked, we really don't know if family members have been infected. 

Meanwhile, official information on Trump's condition remains vague.  Saturday morning included the strange spectre of Trump's doctor providing a sunny assessment, and the WH chief of staff immediately afterwards cautioning reporters that Trump's condition was worse than reported on Friday--a situation, if expected to occur at all, would be expected to be reversed, with the doctor being frank and the political staffer offering a more optimistic view.

Gabriel Sherman at Vanity Fair reported that sources told him Trump's condition was alarming on Friday, when his temperature spiked and his oxygen levels dropped.  Two sources said Trump had heart palpitations during the night.  Saturday Trump appeared well enough to make a short video from his hospital office but acknowledged that doctors warned his condition could change, over the next few days and even weeks.

The White House itself has been a black hole of information, even to White House staffers and in particular to the non political White House staff, the people who keep the place running, often for multiple administrations.

This May Be Just the Beginning

As the positives mounted up among high ranking Republicans, it looks as if most if not all of them were present at the introduction of the SC nominee last weekend.  Several who have symptoms started noticing them on Friday--almost a week later.  But the week that followed was full of activity among these Trump insiders (including Trump), involving many more insiders and also members of the public as well as big donors: the debate on Tuesday (where the Trump family in particular was present), Trump's private meeting and his public speech on Wednesday in Minnesota (when some observers felt he started showing signs of fatigue and congestion; notably, some saw fatigue even on Tuesday), and (after Trump and his aides knew of Hope Hicks illness) a fundraiser on Thursday.  So there were many more opportunities for people to be infected, that have not tested positive yet, but may test positive in days to come .

As for those who have been infected, the course of the illness also could be long.  Especially in older patients, it may take a week or ten days of moderate symptoms before a sudden turn for the worse.

Because each case is so individual in symptoms and time, the uncertainties multiply as the positives increase.  That the head of the RNC and the head of the Trump campaign tested positive as well as White House aides begin ripples of consequences and uncertainties.  And indeed, at least two Senators tested positive, and they have met with others since last weekend when they likely were infected.  

So for all the talk of people recovering in five days, and for those who have tested negative but who might have been exposed during the week, the story may be just beginning.

Friday, October 02, 2020

Who Was the Superspreader?

 This all started with the report that presidential confidant Hope Hicks had symptoms and tested positive for Covid 19.  The news that Donald and Melania Trump tested positive late Thursday obviously dominated attention.  But the one report I've seen on Hicks said that she is quite sick, with fever and--the telltale Covid sign--loss of smell.  She is also reportedly pissed off at the lax attitudes and practices at the White House, and especially pissed off that the impression has been given--by Trump himself--that she is the source of the Trumps' infection.  In terms of behavior, she is probably the least likely member of the inner circle.

Now that we have some sort of timeline, and a number of other positives, it seems that she probably wasn't the source, and not the superspreader, if there was one.  The common denominator known so far was Trump himself.  He was present at events attended by all the positives so far.  This doesn't mean he was the superspreader, but he can't yet be ruled out as such.

While other Trump family members and others in the inner circle tested negative today, the timeline suggests that infections may be present that haven't shown up yet.  For those exposed to Trump at Tuesday's debate, for example, an infection might not show up until Sunday, on average.  

Otherwise, on Friday evening, each report makes Trump's condition more symptomatic and more serious.  Since no one can trust official pronouncements from this White House, people who claim to know are given more credibility.  An unfortunate situation to say the least.

Presidential Covid Crisis: First Thoughts

 I'm writing this a few hours after the news broke that Donald and Melania Trump have both tested positive for Covid 19 but the White House doctor stated they are both feeling well so far.  They were tested because Hope Hicks, a close aide, tested positive after exhibiting symptoms.  Since it is around 5am in the eastern US, further news is yet to come.  So in this lacuna, I'm having these thoughts...

1.  If both Trumps tested positive, it seems likely that one of them infected the other.  Which means that one of them has likely been infectious for perhaps days.  Donald Trump in particular may have infected a number of people, including Joe Biden.  Shouting at somebody for an hour and a half even from six feet away theoretically could do it.  

What about vp Pence?  Will he be on the contact tracing list?  Negative tests right now don't mean anyone is out of danger--they may be vulnerable for 10 days to 2 weeks.  And what about members of Congress? Their contact has been limited, but they are politicians after all.  This could be a long list.

2.  Tired of waiting for the White House to come to an agreement, Nancy Pelosi and the House passed a $2.2 trillion covid crisis relief bill.  Now the contrast of the White House and the first family receiving highest quality medical monitoring and care at taxpayer expense while millions suffer from lack of health care, from unemployment including new rounds of layoffs, decreased benefits from the federal government and financially devastated states, becomes pretty stark.  Suddenly there might be an agreement.

3. This is the kind of moment that usually brings the country together.  But the ill will created by this White House, and particularly its lying and stonewalling which casts vital information now into doubt, may create a very different dynamic.  This happens on the same day as revelations that cast even Melania Trump is a very poor light.  

4. As for the campaign, when Richard Nixon injured himself in 1960 and couldn't campaign for several days, John Kennedy voluntarily took himself off the campaign trail for that time.  This is a much more complicated case.  For one thing, Joe Biden may well go into quarantine if his doctors feel he might have been exposed to the virus from Trump or others at the debate.  It seems very unlikely that the presidential debates, already in question, will go ahead.  But will Biden do his scheduled tv town hall?  What about the v.p. debates?

5. Longer term, there may be a sympathy vote for Trump in new polls, or if he remains without symptoms and apparently recovers, he may use this experience to bolster his contention that the virus is overrated.  First media reaction was to suggest that this will devastate an already losing campaign.  It might get more complicated.

All of this is preliminary to the drama that will play out for the next two weeks: the Symptoms Watch, the eyes on the helicopter that might be headed for Walter Reed.  And if Trump gets sick--and as everyone is repeating, he's at high risk for bad outcomes because of age and overweight--then people will start getting nervous about this White House consisting of extremist hacks and amateurs with no regard for the country and its institutions but only for partisan politics and ideology, being in charge of the presidency and any necessary changes.  

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

One More Month

 Immediate political evaluations of the first Trump v. Biden debate are overwhelmingly that Trump lost, if only because he didn’t win. He is behind by a lot. National polls still provide Biden a 7 to 10 point lead, and (according to USA Today’s averages) his lead increased over the past week, not only nationally but in all states in play except Texas and Georgia, and some polls suggest Biden is ahead in them as well. Notably Biden increased his lead substantially in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. So Trump needed a win to change the dynamics.

 David Siders begins his Politico piece on the debate with the entire story in a nutshell:

 The mayhem Donald Trump subjected Americans to on Tuesday might have helped him if Joe Biden had disintegrated. Biden didn’t.

Josh Marshall put it this way:

" I think it was somewhere between bad and disastrous for President Trump... I saw nothing tonight that seems at all likely to improve things for President Trump. Nothing. Biden did fine. Not great. But fine. I’d say he had a B performance with some B+ or even A- minus moments. But for him that’s fine. He’s ahead. He’s not running as best debater. He’s not running as most dynamic figure. He’s not competing for most unstable affect. He’s running as the guy who will end the nightmare."

There were moments that will be repeated but the overall impression for most was that Trump’s constant interruptions of both Biden and the moderator violated all the agreed upon rules as well as the rules of civil political debate for the US presidency, and blew up the debate and perhaps the presidential debate format. This earned universal condemnation, even from Fox News. (Their panel may have sung a different tune had not the abused moderator been their own Chris Wallace.)

 Another Wallace—Nicole at MSNBC—in fact very powerfully characterized Trump’s tactics as abuse, in its contemporary sense. She also suggested that Trump’s approach was not spontaneous, it was planned and in some sense rehearsed by the campaign. But why? she asked.

 Rachel Maddow voiced the answer that others suggested more obliquely. Speaking of Trump she said: “He’s not running against his opponent. He’s running against the election.”

 And what does that mean? 

 After my most recent news fast, I awoke to hear Lindsay Graham asserting that of course Republicans would honor the process of the election. If the Supreme Court says the winner is Biden, they will accept that, he said.

 And I said: the Supreme Court? What happened to the election, which is traditionally decided by totaling up the votes?

 That (and a column whose author I no longer recall that asserted that Trump no longer cares about winning, he’s setting up to stay in power by other means) alerted me to the fact that this insane strategy is not Homegrown Hitler’s alone but the national Republican party’s.

 There are various scenarios for a Trump retention, regardless of the votes. Except for Trump simply refusing to leave—not a winning strategy, unless the Secret Service and the rest of the federal government violate the Constitution—the scenarios for accomplishing this are complicated and require every court case, every decision by every state legislature involved, etc. to go the same Homegrown Hitler way.

 And that’s even before factoring in something that seems to get forgotten in these discussions: there is more than one election on election day, more than one office, and except for the presidency—which includes the intervening electoral college stuff-- they are decided directly by a plurality of votes. Notably every member of the House of Representatives is up for election, and a third of the Senate. Votes have to be counted for those offices as well, which complicates the politics of challenging results. Republicans as well as Democrats don’t take office until their votes are counted, which provides motivation for counting them.

 Moreover, the new Congress takes office on January 3, almost three weeks before the President’s term of office is officially done. The dynamics of forcing a presidential election to be thrown to the House may be greatly affected if, as is likely, there are more Democrats in Congress.

 So what about the Supreme Court? So far this year, challenges asserting fraud in mail-in votes have been notably unsuccessful in courts. The Supreme Court would have to reverse every lower court decision. The suggested strategy is to get votes thrown out—or the election entirely negated—in a few key states. Each case has to be decided on its own merits, and the Rs may have to win them all.

 There may be a test case in the Supreme Court before the election. Republicans are challenging a Pennsylvania decision to extend the time that mailed votes may be received in order to be counted. If the Court doesn’t take this case, or if it decides against the challenge, the whole house of cards could fall right then and there.

 But while understanding the nefarious intentions here, which amount to an attempted coup, and while being prepared to counter such activities, they are all unlikely at this point.

Even if the polls are wrong, not by the margin of error, but by 50%, Joe Biden would still win the presidency in a landslide. 

 The determination of early voters to get their votes counted suggest that more Democrats may vote in-person than had planned to. In any case, people voting against Trump are very determined, and will do whatever is necessary. They want the nightmare to be over. 

 As for election day, there are some interesting dynamics in Pennsylvania (which has started early voting), and the polls in Florida and North Carolina are close, so it still a big unknown whether the outcome of the presidential election will be known by election night, but it is more likely now that it will be pretty evident, at least to analysts and perhaps to everyone.

 Court cases in a few states may well not make enough of a difference. The margins may well be too great in others. The presidential election will not be close, and while the 49 state victory is a thing of the past, this could be an historic landslide by other measures. A Democratic majority in the Senate is also likely. 

 This may yet require some heroics, especially by voters who refuse to be intimidated, bamboozled or dismissed. There are ample opportunities for Republican officeholders—like certain US Senators facing votes to rush through a SC nomination—to wake up from their fatal trance and do the right thing. The stakes are basic and extreme— the future of the US and the future of the Earth.

Monday, September 28, 2020

Poetry Monday: Among School Children

 I walk through the long schoolroom questioning; 
A kind old nun in a white hood replies;
 The children learn to cipher and to sing,
 To study reading-books and history, 
To cut and sew, to be neat in everything
 In the best modern way--the children's eyes
 In momentary wonder stare upon
 A sixty-year-old smiling public man.

What youthful mother, a shape upon her lap
 Honey of generation had betrayed,
 And that must sleep, shriek, struggle to escape
 As recollection or the drug decide, 
Would her son, did she but see that shape
 With sixty or more winters on its head,
 A compensation for the pang of his birth,
 Or the uncertainty of his setting forth?

 Both nuns and mothers worship images,
 But those the candles light are not as those
 That animate a mother's reveries,
 But keep a marble or a bronze repose.
 And yet they too break hearts--O Presences 
That passion, piety or affection knows,
 And that all heavenly glory symbolize--
 O self-born mocker of man's enterprise;

Labour is blossoming or dancing where
 The body is not bruised to pleasure soul,
 Nor beauty born out of its own despair,
 Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil,
 O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer, 
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
 O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
 How can we know the dancer from the dance? 

 --William Butler Yeats Four stanzas from "Among School Children" (1927)

The photo above, taken recently, is of a building on S. Hamilton Ave. in Greensburg, PA that was the Sacred Heart School from 1922 to the early 1960s.  This was my first school as a first grader in 1952.  It was the first building outside my home and my grandmother's house where I'd ever spent an entire day.  I was there nearly every weekday of the school year through the fifth grade, until June 1957.  I remember details of this building as it was then, inside and out, very clearly. 

 Instead of the three windows seen in this photos, there were walls of tall windows from near the edges of the building to that arched central area on both sides of it. In height they reached from slightly above desk level to nearly the ceiling.  There were four long classrooms: two facing the street, two the back.  Another makeshift classroom was eventually assembled in the basement.  Until I started school, the basement had previously been Sacred Heart Church.  It is where I attended my first Mass, and made up little stories for myself, to explain what the Latin singing meant.  

In my time there was a kind old nun or two among the nuns our teachers.  Old to us anyway.  But there was also violence, the rule of the ruler across the outstretched hand and more, the body "bruised to pleasure soul."

Sacred Heart School was abandoned when the newly constituted St. Paul's parish finished building a modern new school just outside of Greensburg in the baby booming 60s.  That school in turn has been abandoned, as Catholic schools in the area contracted to one building complex on Main Street in Greensburg, at least part of which is quite old.  The old Sacred Heart building on Hamilton has had many tenants and uses since it ceased being a school.  For awhile the basement was a dance studio for young girls. 

Friday, September 25, 2020

History of My Reading: Billy Pilgrim in Galesburg

Standish Park in Galesburg 1903
Standish Park Galesburg 1903

  After my last draft adventure, and my disillusion and early sorrow in Iowa City, I was back in Galesburg. Joni was completing her Knox College degree requirements the second half of that 1968-69 school year. We lived together in an apartment just off campus, not far from Post Hall, a quiet duplex (476 S. West?) with Skip Peterson’s mother and father on the other side.

 I have memories of reading a couple of books linked to a physical location during this time. In that apartment, in the first floor study, I recall reading Euripides’ play The Trojan Women in some collection or anthology, and wanting to adapt it for a contemporary audience. It was a great idea but too ambitious for me to actually get very far. However, in just a few years (1971) its anti-war relevance led to a feature film starring Vanessa Redgrave, Katharine Hepburn, Irene Pappas and Geneveive Bujold. 

Another physical memory is of reading a fiction paperback called Jesus Christs in a booth at Higgins Diary, which was across South Street from the main campus official entrance.  It was a quieter, lower intensity place, not as social as the Gizmo but still within the hum and buzz. I also read Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn at about the same time. I don’t recall anything about the Beagle, except it was probably the first fantasy novel I’d read since Alice in Wonderland, and that I sometimes felt like the last unicorn (and I was hardly alone in that.)

 I still have that copy of Jesus Christs by A. J. Langguth. The premise was that Jesus returned to earth many times, surrounded by different versions of his disciples and other characters from the Biblical account, often with different outcomes, and a different kind of Jesus. Some of the stories are no longer than a paragraph, others are dramatic dialogues and stories of several pages (one reimagines Jesus as a Vietnamese fighter.)

 The idea appealed to me, still only five years out of Catholic schools, and not quite a year after my own variation in my play What’s Happening, Baby Jesus? Reading the Langguth book again after a half century, some stories seem insipid but others—especially the dialogues—are absorbing. 

  I was moving farther away from straight naturalistic fiction, although I also recall we had a paperback copy of John Updike’s best seller Couples. This trend in my reading seems related to Kurt Vonnegut’s best seller of that spring, Slaughterhouse-Five. I’m pretty sure it was after I read it that I tracked down his earlier novels (apart from Mother Night, which I’d already read.)

 I probably enjoyed Sirens of Titan the most, the novel in which Vonnegut had come closest to pure science fiction (the planet Tralfamadore, which starred in Slaughterhouse Five, appeared in it.) I remember beginning Cat’s Cradle on either a bus or a train. Then Player Piano, his first novel. His novel just previous to Slaughterhouse, Good Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, had been his most popular up to then, but it was, at least initially, my least favorite. I probably didn't read all of those in Galesburg, but elsewhere in 1969, though I'm pretty sure  I read the stories in a new collection there: Welcome to the Monkey House (which included many in the previous collection I'd read.) 

 Vonnegut’s reputation exploded with Slaughterhouse-Five. Fortunately for me, I didn’t know that Vonnegut wrote most of it in the Iowa City I'd just fled, or the irony might have done me in. The evocation of the largely unknown firebombing of Dresden within the story of Billy Pilgrim unstuck in time, was a stunning tour de force, written in an unmistakable voice that resonated with the times. It was one of those books that unites people who love it. It was if we could almost inhabit it together. It wasn’t quite Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, but almost. It cast a spell.

 This isn’t to say the admiration was universal or complete. It’s easy to forget sometimes that students could be at least as cynical as professors and administrators, though usually on different subjects. I still claim however, that even in those years I was not cynical. I could be sardonic, satiric, less often sarcastic, too often thoughtless of others, and at times despairing. But not really cynical. That’s also how how I understood Vonnegut to be. 

While we were in Galesburg, Joni and I both worked part time at the Knox Bookstore. That for me was pretty much the equivalent of an alcoholic working in a bar. I remember for example lusting after J. P. Donleavy’s The Beastly Beatitudes of Bathazar B as it came in, before discovering his earlier books other than The Ginger Man.

 Otherwise, a notebook from this period indicates I was reading R.D. Laing’s The Politics of Experience, Thomas Merton’s Zen and the Birds of Appetite, and The Subversive Science, the ecology reader edited by Paul Shepard containing probably his most famous essay, “Ecology and Man: A Viewpoint.” This evidently sent me back to re-reading sections of Shepard’s first book, Man in the Landscape, because I also quote that in my notebook. I also seemed to be attempting—not for the first or last time— Joyce’s finnegans wake

 I must have also been reading John Cage again, because when we invited Robin and Lynn Metz over for dinner, and we played a game of Monopoly afterwards, I insisted on making all my moves with chance operations, by flipping coins. Robin took advantage of any resulting weak moves with a relish that I think scared him a little.

 Meanwhile I was participating in Knox life to the extent that some people might have concluded that I was either enrolled as a student or teaching classes. I went to movies, plays and public lectures, either with Joni or alone. This was probably the year I participated in guitar improvisations with Steve Meyers and Dick Wissler, that Wissler recorded. 

 Over those months I wrote reviews and articles for the Knox Student, participated in a poetry reading (noted in that year's Gale), had a jagged short story published in the first issue of the renamed literary magazine Catch, and acted in Sherwood Kiraly’s latest play in the Studio Theatre, “Smokers Cough III,” a comedy in which Norse gods intervene in an Old West poker game, or something like that. The Knox Student theatre critic told me that I was his choice for best Studio Theatre performance of the spring, but fortunately for us both, the final issue of the Student wasn’t published that year for some reason, so his article saying so didn’t appear. 

He probably did not see the show on the final night, however, because we mercilessly embroidered our performances, literally upstaging each other for laughs. An example: downstage, closest to the audience, was the poker table where much of the action took place. At one point, I (as Old Slim) wander back to the bar (upstage), and silently drink while the poker table action continues. Only this time instead of just pouring myself a drink, I spilled the bottle, sending liquid down on the town drunk, dozing at the foot of the bar under a sombrero.

 I got a big laugh, but the actors at the poker table couldn’t see me, and so they didn’t know why the audience was laughing. Then the audience laughed again, and even I didn’t know why. It was because Jim Reynolds as the drunk had upstaged me, by putting a tentative hand out as the water dripped down on him, as if testing for rain.

 If the audience thought that was a planned bit, they gave us more credit than we were due. But basically they caught on to the fact we were improvising and trying to break each other up. They laughed a lot, so it was the most fun I’ve had in a theatre, at least on stage.

 And that wasn’t all. The director was also one of the actors, so with the connivance of the author and the lighting director at the cast party the night before, we changed the ending without telling the director, just to see the look on his face when it was his turn to speak and he had no next line.

 But all this also had its weirdness. From my notebook: “Sitting in the Commons Room after everyone has gone/my life/lived here. Now I am even/quoted here./I sit here/like a vulture/ circling my own life.”

 Since I was still theoretically writing my college novel, this extra residence provided more opportunities to test and refine impressions, which is a writerly kind of vulture behavior I suppose. I noted for example (in my notebook), the feeling of fall: “Fresh warm wind blowing, bright sunshine, the cool air, the love for the people, their faces anticipated. Can’t hurry fast enough to do the next thing, to get to the Giz, see people, mind racing ahead, plotting possibilities in the thrilling wind.”

 I had become interested in writers who had attended Knox. I’d heard stories about Eugene Field, the journalist and children’s poet (Wynken, Blinken and Nod) whose checkered academic career included a boisterous year at Knox. In the 1960s he was a rarely mentioned black sheep. So I read more about him. I had already made that poem a motif in my college fiction, with my characters Lincoln, Blakely and Nod.

I’m not sure how I learned about Jack Finney (Knox class of 1934), but at the time he certainly wasn’t an honored alum either, nor very well known. That would begin to change a year or so after I dredged up a book of his short stories in the Knox library, not in general circulation (I had to sit in a silent room alone to read it), called I Love Galesburg in the Springtime

 The title story lovingly described the texture and architecture of Galesburg’s surviving 19th century character, while relating several incidents of the past invading the Galesburg present: like a disconnected old wall phone ringing, and a dead boyhood friend’s voice on the other end.

 Finney had written a couple of novels that had been turned into successful movies, including one of the great science fiction movies of the 1950s, Invasion of the Body Snatchers. He also wrote the episode of the 1950s series Science Fiction Theatre that I remembered best from seeing it at about age 9.  It also had an eerie time travel theme, this time from the future to the present. Fittingly, it was called “Time Is Just A Place.” It was directed by Jack Arnold, who made many of the other great 50s s/f movies.

 But Finney didn’t achieve fame until the success of his 1970 novel, Time and Again, in which the protagonist travels back through time to New York City in 1882. By then Finney had lived in New York for years, and employed the same loving detail about its historic architecture—including buildings no longer existing—as he did in the Galesburg story, though with much more mesmerizing effect. The novel is illustrated with period photos, a technique that later writers (notably W. G. Sebold) also employed. (Oddly, it was never filmed, though science fiction writer Richard Matheson later based his own similar story on it--with appropriate credit to Finney--which did result in an unjustly forgotten 1980 film titled Somewhere in Time, starring Christopher Reeve and a luminous Jane Seymour.)

 I was immediately taken with that Galesburg story because I recognized some of the romance of the place that Finney did. Those old Victorian Gothic houses, like Anderson House where I lived my first two years at Knox, did have a feeling about them, and a mystery. In my years there I walked all over Galesburg, especially at night, often with a companion... Under the persimmon trees of Standish Park. Down the brick walks, the wide streets that might lead directly into dark fields, through the cemetery with a thrilling wind high in the trees....Following trails winding next to long sets of solitary railroad tracks...Late night blueberry pancakes at the Q, or in a hidden restaurant seemingly known only to railroad men... Standing at the kitchen door of a house hosting games of chance, to buy one of their tremendous chicken sandwiches... Or eating my first taco from a Mexican place. Sandburg and Lincoln walked these streets, as did the young Ronnie Reagan. I hadn’t yet discovered the great Dorothea Tanning, a fellow editor of the Siwasher. Finney only scratched the surface of ghostly history superimposed on the present.

 Time and Again sold very well and was highly praised by Stephen King, Carl Sagan and many others. In 1986 Finney repackaged stories from his I Love Galesburg in the Springtime collection,  together with stories from his 1957 collection The Third Level in a new book titled  About Time.  It includes "Such Interesting Neighbors," which he'd adapted for that Science Fiction Theatre episode. 

Now Knox honors him as one of their own, or at least students did, by naming a science fiction and fantasy magazine Third Level, after that first collection and its title story in which the protagonist stumbles upon an enchanted level of Grand Central Station stuck in the 1880s, and he tries to buy a ticket to the Galesburg of that era. But in 1969, it was just me reading him in the Seymour Library. 

With Finney as with Vonnegut, the characters are unstuck in time.  It strike me that this describes the situation of college students, and a fundamental quality of academia--one's mind and heart roam the centuries, temporarily inhabiting aspects of another time (including the future), through literature and art, history and other studies, as well as through films and exchanges with others in the community. And these overlap and overlay, often simultaneously.  For me this defines one of the more attractive elements of academia, though it requires a great deal of deliberate innocence to feel it and focus on it.

Unstuck in time might also describe readers in a library, including their own.

My residency in Galesburg that year had itself begun with a strange event. I was at a student party in a large and largely empty house, very dark. Very late in the evening a male student I knew approached me, and said there had been a misunderstanding with some men from town, and his girlfriend had to get out of there quickly. Could I walk her to his apartment several blocks away? I knew and liked his girlfriend so without needing to know any more, I agreed.

 On our way I could see we were being followed by several men in a car driving slowly behind us in the darkness. I kept walking, my arm around my weeping companion. When I glanced back again the car was gone.

 I did get a little more of the story later, but still, there were a number of mysterious aspects to this event that I’ve thought about many times since. I guess I prefer to believe I was given this task because I could be trusted to see it through. In this, I was perhaps following an element of my own nature that I learned to value, as expressed by John Updike in a short story I first read just before my freshman year at Knox. “The Happiest I’ve Been” ends with the young narrator saying, “And there was knowing that twice since midnight a person had trusted me enough to fall asleep beside me.”

Thursday, September 24, 2020

When It's Always Summer



 I send along this oddly unknown song, sung by Louis Armstrong, music by Dave Brubeck and lyrics by Iola Brubeck, to celebrate Margaret (that's Margaret K.) on her birthday. 

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Margaret Atwood: Prize Her Alive

Congratulations to Margaret Atwood for being named the winner of an international prize awarded by the Dayton Literary Peace Prize foundation that the Guardian characterized as “a lifetime  achievement award that celebrates literature’s power to foster peace, social justice and global understanding.”

It’s a good start towards this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature. There’s no one else who deserves it more, and this should be her year, especially with the publication of The Testaments, her sequel to her 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale, which has hit the best seller lists again and is now the source for an internationally successful television series.

 I’ve promoted her for the Nobel before, and each year has added to the logic. Her novels (with the mix of here and now naturalism and maybe pretty soon speculation), books of poems, nonfiction on literary themes, as well as graphic novels, contributions to associated dramatic and musical works, and her active and creative participation in various digital forms form a unique body of work. She is a deeply literary writer (and literary scholar), and equally engaged in the defining issues of the times through her work as well as outside it, which is pretty much the description of an ideal Nobel laureate.

 I must also admit that I’ve come to depend on her company in my pandemic sequestration, partly through reading but also to a large extent through YouTube videos of her interviews and appearances. At 80 years old she talks from a perspective slightly longer in years than mine, and those few years are crucial because she has childhood memories of life during World War II, a period I just missed but felt as a phantom in the lives of my parents and others.

Her background is fascinating and pretty different from mine, though her early schools sound familiar—apparently 1950s Canadian schools and 1950s Catholic schools in the US had a lot in common. She speaks from her perspective in a way that I (at 74) understand and appreciate. She is a great talker and has an impish sense of humor. Glimpses of interviews from prior decades (particularly in this excellent UK documentary) suggest why she was considered a bit scary, but that wasn’t her problem, it was theirs.

Her perspective is large in other ways I appreciate.  She know a lot of literature--ancient, historical and contemporary. (She had the good fortune to study with the great Canadian literary critic, Northrop Frye.)  She knows the important stories.  Thanks in part to growing up in the household of a working scientist with scientist friends, her perspective on the human race transcends society as novelists often treat it, and includes the biological, the species-level, notably in the MaddAddam series.

 Here is how she ends her statement on the Dayton Literary Peace Prize web site, with characteristic good sense and heart:

 "Writers are limited in their range – in what they are able to write about – whereas readers are not. Readers can read across the whole sweep of human experience – as far back in the past as they can see, as far afield as they can reach, as far into the future as it is possible to imagine. The closer we are to a person, the psychiatrists tell us, the harder it is to actually murder them. Perhaps that is the way in which reading is conducive to peace: it brings us closer together. If I feel I know you, understand you, and like you, why would I wish to make war on you? 

That, at any rate, is our hope. We could certainly use a little hope, right about now."